In tonight’s Early Music Ensemble performance we investigate the elements of improvisation and invention in the performance of medieval music. Much medieval music survives as only a melody, much as we might find in a jazz chart. However, where we might at least have chords in a jazz chart, medieval music existed before the codification of harmonic function as we know it today, and was based instead on the ancient church modes. As if that were not challenge enough, while first-hand accounts suggest that instruments were often used in the performance of medieval song, there is no treatise that tells us how this was done, or what they did to “arrange” music; we must study their instruments, their process, their modes, and their polyphonic music for hints as to what this might have sounded like.  For this program, we took advantage of the freedom inherent in “not knowing” to arrange parts, mix early and medieval instruments, and in general use our historical imagination to create music that is both new and old.

 We begin our program tonight with Fas et nefas ambulant, a meditation on generosity found in the medieval Carmina Burana manuscript, in which the poet contemplates the difference between giving freely and “casting pearls before swine,” as the saying goes. The poet shows off his clerical background with references to Cato and Juvenal, suggesting that this poem comes from the repertoire of the scholar-poet-musicians known as goliards. We follow that with an “invented” instrumental piece based on motives from the melody of Fas et nefas, dance written in the form of a medieval dance known as an estampie.

Improvisation also may have played a part in the creation of polyphonic vocal music in the Middle Ages. Entire treatises give us rules for inventing the polyphonic genre known organum, which arose in the sophisticated music circles of Notre Dame cathedral and the University of Paris in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and was championed by the composers Leonin and Perotin. The tenor or “drone” part of these complex pieces was based on plainchant. Both Leonin and Perotin wrote famous examples of organum based on the Christmas chant Viderunt omnes, which inspired us to create our own Viderunt set. You will hear the plainchant first, followed by an organ improvisation, a vocal improvisation based on the rules for inventing organum set out in the Vatican Organum Treatise,  an estampie based on the melody of Viderunt, and then finally Leonin’s two-part organum duplum version of Viderunt.    

Our last set contains three examples of medieval conductus, a type of Latin song also from the Notre Dame tradition. Conductus could be either polyphonic (multiple voice parts) or monophonic (basically solo song).  Some of them were liturgical, but others were political. In the first, Dic Christi Veritas, poet-composer Philip le Chancelier rails against a “Papal bull’ or proclamation. It is thought that this text may be about the infamous incident in 1198 when a different Philip, King Philip II of France, dumped his second wife, Ingeborg of Denmark, for one Agnes of Merano. Those who could call out the King for his adulterous conduct apparently didn’t have the courage to do so, and the Pope, displeased, decided to apply pressure by punishing the whole country with an interdict (disallowing the sacraments). The Pope eventually won the argument, and King Philip took back Ingeborg, who would probably have been just as pleased to be rid of him. Our second conductus, the monophonic Ve mundo a scandalis is also sometimes attributed to Philip le Chancelier, although that attribution is not certain; it too is a kind of protest song. Dr. Jann Cosart of Baylor University writes that Ve mundo “bemoans the people enslaved by Rome, starved by tax collectors, while at the same time warning those in power that God’s day of judgment will come.” Our third and final conductus,  Vetus abit litera is a 3-voice conductus for the Christmas season. If each voice stays true to its mode, the resulting dissonances are striking. Some performers apply the technique of “musica ficta” to the individual lines in an attempt to avoid some of these dissonances (especially the tritone), but in my opinion it seems to cause a domino effect, creating even more dissonances. We have chosen to go with the mode in its unadulterated glory, singing a brief improvised passage at the beginning and then launching into the conductus itself, to go out in a blaze of dissonant glory that could as easily belong to the twenty-first century as the twelfth.       

--Angela Mariani


 The Program

Fas et nefas ambulant                                                                         Carmina Burana (13th c)

Estampie (dance): “Fas et nefas ambulando”                                    TTU Early Music Ensemble

Viderunt omnes                                                                      Gregorian chant (gradual, Christmas)

Organ improvisation on “Viderunt”                                           Rob DeVet

Vocal improvisation and discant on “Viderunt Omnes”                TTU Early Music Ensemble

Estampie (dance) on “Viderunt omnes”                                     TTU Early Music Ensemble

Notre Dame organum: Viderunt Omnes                                     Magister Leonin (c1150-1201)

 Dic Christi veritas                                                                   Philippe le Chancelier (c1160-1236)

Ve mundo                                                                               Philippe le Chancelier

Procurans odium                                                                     Carmina Burana (13th c)

Vetus abit litera                                                                       Anon., Notre Dame school (13th c)


The TTU Collegium Musicum

 Dr. Stephanie Council

Rob DeVet

Kathleen Felty

Cynthia Fletcher

Justine Halamicek

Chuck Pineda

Jakob Reynolds

Steve Stallings

Stephanie Streseman

With special guests

Robin Phillips  

Dr. Benjamin Robinette